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Wireless infrastructure provider Comsol Networks believes it is positioned to be a key player in the forthcoming 5G era and plans commercial 5G trials this year, with national commercial deployments earmarked for next year.

Comsol CEO Iain Stevenson told ITWeb in an interview that the company plans to use 5G for fixed wireless services and target the fibre-to-the-home market.

"The plan is to go into commercial deployment. We are in the process of running our business case numbers and part of that is that we are going into commercial trial this year. We are in the process of earmarking up to five suburbs nationally.

"We are looking at delivering an actual 5G service and selling the service commercially. Then obviously, from that, we are able to multiply out. We can figure out, what is the uptake? How successful has it been? What are the price marks? And then factor that into our business case for a national deployment.

"Maybe one of the suburbs could be where there is already fibre; they'll be an interesting little test," he said.

5G represents the next evolution of wireless networking with potential speeds hundreds of times faster than consumer 4G networks, with very low latency.

In May 2018, Comsol announced it was collaborating with global technology giants Verizon and Samsung, to launch 5G fixed wireless trials in SA. At the time, Stevenson said that in early trials in the US, Verizon had shown the potential of the 28GHz millimetre spectrum for 5G services.

While most SA telcos will have to wait until at least 2020 for government to allocate 5G spectrum, Comsol already has a "significant tranche" of 28GHz spectrum, which it acquired in 2012, and that is what the planned 5G network will run on.

"28GHz is not yet classified as 5G spectrum yet; we're still going to have to walk that road, but there's a strong argument worldwide that 28GHz will be one of the bands for 5G," he said.

Comsol has been around for over 20 years and has evolved to create SA's biggest open access layer two nationwide network, which is available in over 200 metros. Historically, the company provided wireless connectivity to businesses and public sector institutions, but the 5G network will be a strategy shift to consumer deployment of fixed wireless fibre-like services using 5G.

"We have proven a capability. We have got an asset and it would be crazy for us to just sit and do what we are doing. We've got serious shareholders behind us, so we've got to do justice to the asset."

Comsol Networks is backed by Andile Ngcaba's Convergence Partners, the Industrial Development Corporation and Nedbank Private Equity, and has a staff of 150 people across South Africa.

Stevenson sees the potential for 5G fixed wireless as an alternative to fibre. "I mean, if fibre could get everywhere, I wouldn't be in business.

"If you look at the number of circuits we are putting in a month, many of our contracts are renewed, so we have very little churn; so it's a reliable, low-cost service that is fibre-grade. So I see the natural progression is into servicing that broadband market."

Cutting through the hype

"There are a lot of people on the 5G bandwagon but nobody has actually proven they can operate a millimetre-band network. I have got a network in the ground which is effectively a pre-5G network. It's not quite delivering the capacities of a 5G network, it's getting very close, and we are delivering it on a point-to-multipoint basis and servicing customers reliably," Stevenson explained.

"I don't think [5G is] hype, but everyone is talking about the handsets. It's not about the handset; this is fixed wireless access using 5G."

In May 2018, Comsol partnered with Samsung to trial a live 5G pilot network in Vilakazi Street in Soweto. The trial ran for three months and Stevenson said it was "very successful".

"We have been doing a lot of knowledge-share with Verizon and we have been in tune with what they have been doing in the US. Through that relationship, we got to know Samsung and got a hook into the development programme that Samsung has started.

"So we deployed a 5G trial in Soweto and it was a proper trial with two base stations and multiple CPEs. This wasn't just one base station with one CPE to prove that you have connected; we actually deployed live circuits. We put in 10Gbps fibre to each of the base stations and distributed that capacity in and around Vilakazi Street, to a host of restaurants, a medical centre, a school, one of the FET colleges, and it basically ran live for three months.

"What came out of the trial was that on the edge of the network we got 1.89Gbps. Non-line-of-sight at the edge of the network was 100Mbps."

Stevenson said the trial proved the viability of fixed wireless services on 5G.

"This tech has the ability to deliver an effective service, moving into what Verizon is doing with its Gig-services that are going down, so increments of 100Mbps, not 10Mbps. Getting 100Mbps to the home user in a fixed wireless access format is a feasible business case, and that is what we are working on now. We are looking at targeting the fibre-to-the-home business case because you are effectively getting the throughputs you need and you can get the densification you need.

"So we have proven the business case, which is one of the reasons Verizon reached out to us: because we have one of the largest millimetre-band networks in the world that is in production, and that is quite key.

"We understand the space; we know the world we're getting into. We've deployed a national network already; we are selling services that have been very successful. For us, this is a small step; this is not a major change in what we are doing. The biggest thing is the operational impact on deploying these networks and supporting these networks. It's your supply chain, support and maintenance, trained people to deploy this stuff.

Evolutionary move

"I think people are associating 5G with 4G, but this is not 4G. This is a quantum shift. So yes, people have used 4G for fixed already, so we're going into a new standard where effectively fixed wireless will be the first iteration; mobility is coming later.

"This is First World stuff. To be able to deliver over 1Gbps wirelessly at distances of up to 4km, that's really cool tech. So you're going to go into a suburb and base stations are going to be live and you can connect instantaneously. As quick as the CPE can get deployed, you'll be able to connect."

There is a real demand for connectivity in SA "and not just in the affluent suburbs; this is countrywide, there's a requirement for reliable, stable connectivity".

The cost for bandwidth on backhaul has come down a lot in recent years, he noted, and with the costs of CPEs coming down as well, it's going to become very cost-effective to use 5G for fixed wireless.

"I'm following what Verizon is doing in the US, and Verizon has sold big chunks of their last-mile fibre asset as a result of what's happening in the space. I'm not here to reinvent the wheel and I'm not going to get into a price war. I see it as complementary service, not necessarily going head-to-head to compete with the existing services. In terms of price, I'm viewing the industry to go sub-R500 for a Gig-service and I don't see the fibre players being able to get to those price marks."

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South Africa
Digital Infrastructure